LIFE Goes to ‘Genius School,’ 1948

Photo from a public "genius school" for 3-to-11-year-olds at New York's Hunter College, 1948.
Nina Leen—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Caption from LIFE. "Sandy, 7, lectures science club on hobby, explains behavior of neutrons in uranium. Diagram was left by previous lecturer, a chemist."

The phrase “genius school” has been tossed around quite a bit over the past few years, especially after Cornell University won an international contest to create a high-tech mecca in New York City. Slated to open in 2017 on Roosevelt Island, a narrow, 150-acre slab of land smack in the middle of the East River, the campus is expected to attract thousands of top-flight students, teachers and researchers from all over the world to work on green technology, computer programming and urban planning (among other disciplines) while pumping billions of dollars back into the New York economy.

Other New York-based schools lost out on the big prize but — with financial help from the city — are planning their own counterparts to Cornell’s mid-river jewel. New York University, for example, is planning an urban sciences center that will operate out of a disused Metropolitan Transit Authority building in Brooklyn, while Columbia has plans for new engineering institute that will be funded in part with a $15 million gift from the city.

In Gotham, it seems, geniuses will soon be as thick on the ground as pigeons, tourists and out-of-work actors.

But this is not the first time New York has played host to a “genius school.” In fact, seven decades ago, the city housed just such a venture at Hunter College — a school filled not with post-adolescent megaminds and college-age uber-geeks, but 450 apparently well-adjusted, engaged kids who just happened to enjoy IQs averaging around 150. (Post-graduate students, by comparison, generally fall in the 120-130 range.)

As LIFE noted in a March 1948 feature on the school:

The school they go to is P.S. 600, part of New York’s public-school system and the only institution in the U.S. devoted entirely to the teaching and study of gifted children. It is held in a wing of the college’s main building, in whose long corridors the bright little kids from 3 to 11 years old like to stop off for between-class chats.

Offhand, young geniuses would seem to present no immediate problems because they are usually bigger, healthier and even happier than average children. However, an educational problem exists simply because they are too bright for their age. If they are promoted rapidly through school on the basis of their studies they will end up as social misfits, unable to enjoy the society of children their own age. On the other hand, if they are held back with their own age group, their quick minds are apt to stagnate.

Hunter children know they are smart, but they are more humble than cocky about their intelligence. . . . Although their interest are advanced, their plans for the future have a refreshing normality. There is a 9-year-old who wants to be a fur trapper, an 8-year-old who wants to be a babysitter and a 7-year-old who wants to be president of the Coca-Cola Company.

Here, presents photos from the feature in the magazine, as well as pictures that never ran in LIFE.

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